Announcement for “POP,” an exhibition curated by Richard Prince at Spiritual America, New York, 1984.

Announcement for “POP,” an exhibition curated by Richard Prince at Spiritual America, New York, 1984.

Spiritual America

“Popisms,” the second section in this month’s special issue, examines ten defining moments in the history of Pop since the '60s, revisiting key interactions between art and mass culture and looking closely look at how they were written into Pop history. Here, David Deitcher remembers the late lamented Lower East Side gallery Spiritual America, while Graham Bader, Howard Singerman and Kitty Hauser recall three shows—“High & Low,” “Helter Skelter,” and “Superflat,” respectively—that have shaped the story of Pop after Pop.

Announcement for “POP,” an exhibition curated by Richard Prince at Spiritual America, New York, 1984.

For twenty years I kept a rather plain postcard tucked away in a folder of art-related ephemera from the early ’80s. From edge to edge on its otherwise black face, white capital letters spell out a single word: “POP.” On the flip side, the card provides the basics about a now all-but-forgotten exhibition: works by Sarah Charlesworth, Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Allan McCollum, and Richard Prince; opening on the evening of February 1, 1984, at a place called Spiritual America, 5 Rivington Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Prince masterminded both “POP” and the funky storefront space he had opened three months earlier with the help of a girlfriend, Kimberly Fine, who obligingly fronted for the artist, running their by-appointment-only enterprise. Hardly a blue-chip affair, “POP”—like the three other shows that marked the short lifespan of Spiritual America (which closed within considerably less than a year)—left few traces: no reviews, no installation shots, no checklist, nothing more than an announcement card beset by misspelled names. I attended the opening of “POP” because I was friendly with Prince and most of the exhibiting artists. Twenty years later, all I remember is a vague sense of the space itself, a Sarah Charlesworth photocollage that resembled a close-up of a tartan, and feeling disappointed. (At the time, I was working on a dissertation that looked, in part, at historic Pop, and “POP” just wasn’t Pop enough for me.)

But with the benefit of two decades’ hindsight, an exhibition of that name, at that time, seems like a landmark in a secret—or anyway elusive—history of pop after Pop. The episode now reads as a shrewd reiteration of a famous Pop gambit: Twenty-two years before Spiritual America, Claes Oldenburg opened “The Store” on the Lower East Side as a venue for Happenings and an emporium for the display and sale of his own exuberantly grungy painted plaster works. Oldenburg and fellow Pop artists turned to popular imagery (and, not uncommonly, invoked the spaces of retailing) to disrupt Abstract Expressionism’s high-cultural solemnity with gregarious signs of everyday life. Building on Pop’s lessons, Prince approached media representations as a parallel universe that we all partially inhabit—our collective imaginary, as it were.

Other artists of Prince’s generation deliberately resisted the ideological blandishments of commercial imagery. Two years before “POP,” for instance, another artist-organized show helped define the same milieu in a different manner. Barbara Kruger’s “Pictures and Promises: A Display of Advertising, Slogans and Interventions” at the Kitchen (Jan. 8–Feb. 5, 1981) comprised a dense installation of ads juxtaposed with “interventions” by, among others, Prince, Sherrie Levine, Laurie Simmons, James Welling, Jenny Holzer, Jimmy de Sana, Hans Haacke, and Hannah Wilke. Just as Stuart Hall would refer in the early ’80s to the “rediscovery of ideology,” so Kruger was looking critically at the spectacular, naturalized world of images as a reflection of mainstream attitudes regarding class, race, gender, and sexuality and at how such representations also help to construct and maintain those attitudes.

While Prince’s early work was perfectly suited to Kruger’s show, he has to this day maintained a stubbornly ambiguous relationship with the imagery he has surveyed. From the late ’70s, when he first embarked on re-photography, and throughout the ’80s, Prince proved a perceptive, quirky guide through the encyclopedic forest of signs. He had a special gift for isolating the revealing detail, the fragment rich in visual rhetoric—the trope that summons the normal and the perverse, the banal and the precious, the sublime and the bizarre. On the cusp of the digital era, he focused on representations whose capacity to convince depended on an analogical photographic realism. So flagrantly artificial was this image world, yet so forceful its social presence, that Prince famously declared it “more real than the real thing.”

Richard Prince, Brooke Shields (Spiritual America), 1983, color photograph, 24 x 20".

Spiritual America opened in November 1983, one year after Nature Morte and one year before International With Monument—artist-run spaces that established profitable footholds of anti-expressionism in the heart of the East Village’s hitherto expressionistic punk Bohemia. Almost a decade after the opening of Spiritual America, in May 1992, the critic Paul Taylor—one of that era’s more knowing voices and editor of the timely anthology Post-Pop Art (1989)—described the space on Rivington in the pages of the New York Times as Prince’s “fake gallery.” The description is apt, I believe, in that the gallery was a low-key setting for the display of new work by Prince and a handful of friends, distinctly not a place where financial gain was a high priority. Fake also, perhaps, because Spiritual America represented a simulacrum of an art gallery—the mere idea of a gallery—at the dawn of the art world’s enthrallment with the later writings of Jean Baudrillard.

The space on Rivington opened with the display of a single work, also called Spiritual America. The opening was a non-event that nonetheless transformed Prince’s venue into a cultish cause célèbre among the few people who knew it existed. Prince’s work hung alone—shrinelike—in a cheap gold frame beneath a diminutive picture light at the end of an otherwise unlit, or dimly lit, narrow room with exposed-brick walls. Taylor dubbed Prince’s eponymous piece “one of the biggest stunts of his career.” The infamous picture was a photograph of a photograph of a heavily lubricated, extravagantly made-up, prepubescent Brooke Shields, posed to look like she has just arisen from a steamy bath. An “extremely complicated photo,” Prince has said, “of a naked girl who looks like a boy made up to look like a woman.”

Complicated indeed. Commercial photographer Garry Gross took the picture in 1975, with the permission of the ten-year-old child’s mother, Teri. After Shields became a star in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978) and achieved further fame and fortune hawking Calvin Klein jeans, in June 1982 she convinced the Supreme Court of New York to issue an injunction against Gross to prevent him from further sales or distribution of the image. In March 1983, eight months before Prince displayed Spiritual America, the Appellate Court overturned the injunction in a 4-3 decision, stating that children cannot break a contract signed by a parent or guardian, thus clearing the way for Gross to resume marketing the images to devotees of arty, soft-core child pornography.

Like historic Pop, Prince’s neo-Pop demonstrates the persistence, despite the odds, of what Roland Barthes called “that old thing art.” Prince borrowed the title Spiritual America from a well-known photograph of the same name taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1923—a close-up of the belly and haunches of a harnessed workhorse. The reuse of the title serves to measure the historical distance between Stieglitz’s modernist equation of American spirituality with a fleshy symbol for the Protestant work ethic and Prince’s postmodernist selection of a spectacular kiddie porn tableau. Prince comments, “I saw Stieglitz’s photograph, Spiritual America, at the Met just before opening the gallery. It’s really the whole reason for the show, for the gallery. I mean a picture of a gelded horse with a title like that—it just seemed to mean so much.”

Clearly, however, the sight of Stieglitz’s picture was not the “whole reason” for any or all parts of the Spiritual America episode. Friends (myself included) remember Prince’s excitement about the Gross picture, which preoccupied him for some time prior to its display. Some of us were offended by what Prince did with the picture, none more so than Kate Linker, author of “On Richard Prince’s Photographs” (first published in Arts Magazine, November 1982) and one of the artist’s most perceptive early supporters. Linker recounted the episode quite vividly this past summer:

Jeff Koons, The New Jeff Koons, 1980, Duratrans and fluorescent light box, 42 x 32".

During the very late ’70s and early ’80s, at a time when Richard and I were good friends, he would often go to one or more bars in the West Forties where young bit-part actresses hung out. He was fascinated by the power that a specific, minute space in the daily edition of the Post or Daily News held for them, and particularly by the way in which all of their professional aspirations and sense of success seemed to converge on the possibility of being represented in that small visual venue. Shortly thereafter, when he became overly obsessed with the storefront named Spiritual America, I thought that the name referred to the degree to which aspirations—or a form of the American or contemporary spirit—could be reflected in the power of surfaces or, specifically, in the suasion of images. What Richard often called “the look” was a form of that same imagistic power; few faces or images had it. To a degree, I think he felt that he was encapsulating something paradoxically profound in his focus on the imagistic surfaces that would be chosen and displayed at this other, small visual venue.

Linker also remembers Prince’s buildup to the opening of Spiritual America as a “somewhat tedious obsession” with one image that did not interest her, except as outrageous visual testimony to the exploitation of a child by her mother. But Prince “seemed mesmerized by it,” writes Linker. “He was fascinated by the way in which ‘they’ had slicked up this ten-year-old, greased her up, and represented her in a pornographic way.” Linker never did visit the storefront on Rivington Street, having broken off her friendship with Prince just before the opening. From her perspective, he had “uncritically pushed both sexuality and feminism away to focus on the equivocal lures of the look.” Prince and Linker haven’t spoken since.

In his preoccupation with the Gross picture and the possible consequences of its appropriation, Prince was, deliberately or not, doing his best to generate a neo-Pop buzz among his friends and associates concerning his scheme. While expounding on “the look” of the photograph, he would also hold forth on the likelihood that his ploy would lead to legal action by those who would want to suppress the scandalous image. Notwithstanding the grassroots hype, Spiritual America did not sell. Prince recently explained that two years after the work’s display, he gave Spiritual America to a friend, artist Meyer Vaisman. But in February 2004 a San Francisco gossip columnist reported that on the occasion of a lecture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco in which Prince discussed Spiritual America, he responded to a question about what happened to the work with the deadpan assertion that he’d sold it to his plumber for $100. To be sure, Prince is well known for such devil-may-care self-mythologizing. Contradictory claims therefore abound, as if in literal demonstration of the dispersed, schizoid subjectivity that was then so often associated with postmodernist art in general, and with Prince’s in particular.

Prince’s version of the Gross picture posed quite a challenge to contemporary art collectors. They would have had to overcome not only their resistance to buying photographs (still not an established market in 1983)—let alone photographs of photographs—but also the taboo against child pornography. Only lately have collectors taken up Prince’s implicitly lubricious challenge, and with spectacular results. On November 13, 2003, one version of Spiritual America, from an edition of ten dated 1983, sold at auction in New York for $372,500. (“Now that’s Spiritual America,” Prince exclaimed, according to the San Francisco columnist.) Less than a year later, the “original” Spiritual America sold in Basel for just under $1 million.

The display of Spiritual America attracted only one brief mention in the press—and that by an insider, Walter Windshield, aka Walter Robinson, whose paintings representing illustrations of Hollywood movie-star types from the days of yore made up one of the four exhibitions at Spiritual America. In reviewing the piece for the East Village Eye, Windshield described the image’s sexual charge, including more than one reference to the “stage-mother as pimp.” But he did not describe Prince’s intensely theatrical installation (a bit of Times Square on the Lower East Side) nor reflect on the meaning of the artist’s gesture—beyond noting by way of conclusion that Prince “remains the mute artist; hardly the artist as maker, he only looks, like the rest of us.”

Cindy Sherman, Untitled 108, 1982, color photograph, 36 x 36".

Another story regarding the promotion and display of the Shields picture comes straight from the Pop playbook. It has been widely reported (though never proven) that when word of Prince’s project reached Gross (or Shields, or Shields’s mother), he (she/they) threatened to sue Prince for copyright infringement. Robinson recently recalled—or recalled hearing—that Gross visited the Rivington storefront with Shields’s mother, and that the two considered but decided against suing the maker of this presumably unsaleable object, displayed as it was in an appointment-only storefront in a lousy part of town. Such threats of legal action—or, more often, rumors of such threats—have peppered the history of Pop since 1962, when the art educator Earl Loran threatened Roy Lichtenstein for exhibiting three large paintings based on diagrams from the pages of Loran’s book, Cezanne’s Composition. Last summer, Prince insisted that not only did Gross not threaten him with legal action, “he didn’t know anything about it when I showed his picture at Spiritual America.” Last February, Prince told his audience in San Francisco that Teri Shields had threatened him with legal action. The jury, as it were, is still out.

In attempting to reconstruct “POP,” I turned to the murky realm of memory—my own and others’. Early last summer I contacted each of the show’s participants; their recollections were sometimes gratifying, usually pleasurable, and ultimately, of course, inconclusive. McCollum remembers the opening of the gallery as an “annoying event.” He was particularly bothered by one thing, and it had nothing to do with the art: “The young women who coordinated the exhibition for Richard (who chose to remain semi-anonymous) were extremely snotty and not too bright: They decided it would be cool to paint the gallery floor with silver metallic paint, and stupidly chose to do this an hour before the reception; everyone slipped and mushed around in the wet paint and quickly left, with silver paint all over their shoes. Remember?” Indeed, now I do remember my feet sticking to the tacky floor, and the silver paint wrecking a nice pair of boots. Notwithstanding the show’s ill-fated opening, McCollum recalls “POP” with some affection. “Richard’s show was very tight, and the artists, each very strong, presented together modestly, with a single work each, to form an analytical whole that was effective and memorable.” McCollum further commends Prince for his “clever use of the all-caps ‘POP’ (rather than just ‘Pop’ to allow for the common acronymic interpretation ‘Point Of Purchase’), an inflection that offered a reference to the gallery as a site of economic exchange.”

Prince doesn’t corroborate the institutional-critique read on “POP.” Asked about the show’s title, he replies, “Pop wasn’t a good word back then”—perhaps a reference to the fact that Pop had been considered a “non-issue” throughout the heyday of Minimal and Conceptual art and was only just beginning to enjoy a resurgence as Prince and his colleagues conceived their artistic projects. Prince claims to have organized “POP” for one overriding reason: “The artists I put into it weren’t popular. I was thinking that they should have been more popular than the artists who were.” It’s true the most “popular” artists of the day were the neo-expressionists. Difficult as it may be to conceive of a time when Prince, Sherman, Lawler, McCollum, Charlesworth, and Koons weren’t “popular,” during the early ’80s their work attracted nowhere near the economic and curatorial commitments that art by, say, David Salle or Julian Schnabel did. “I thought what we did was easy,” says Prince. “But it wasn’t. Look at Louise Lawler and Jeff Koons. I guess it took another fifteen years to get it.”

But what did “POP” actually include? Virtually everyone involved with the show remembers the presence of Jeff Koons’s Duratran light box, The New Jeff Koons, 1981, in which a beaming, fresh-faced eight-year-old Koons poses with his brand new set of crayons. Lawler remembers standing “in the glow of the Koons light box, my feet sticking to the floor which had been too recently painted silver, and that my work hung across from Sarah’s plaids.” Charlesworth’s 1983 “Plaid” series, of which she exhibited one or two examples, is comprised of black-and-white photographs of familiar tartan patterns with colored gels adhered to the surface to suggest, through choice of color, such titles as Wallace, Balmoral, Dress MacPhereson, and Dress Macleod.

McCollum initially remembered that Lawler showed “one of her oddball fillip works, a photo of a Japanese toy, a little triceratops-type beast.” McCollum is referring to works like Portrait (Green), 1983, one of a number of modestly scaled photographs of colorful Japanese toys—hilariously fearsome little plastic creatures that Lawler photographed against vivid, monochromatic backgrounds to poke fun at neo-expressionist portraiture. But after speaking with Lawler, McCollum remembered seeing her “portraits” a year later as part of “Interesting,” an installation at Nature Morte, thus making him doubt his initial memory that they were in “POP,” since he thought she would not likely have shown the same work in different contexts. Still, neither he nor she rejects the possibility that she first exhibited one in “POP.”

Louise Lawler, Portrait (Green), 1984, color photograph, 7 x 5".

McCollum has no doubt that he showed one of his “Perpetual Photos”—grainy black-and-white close-ups of framed pictures “found” on interior walls in movies and on TV. The “Perpetual Photos” evoke the lessons of Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), demonstrating the paradoxical loss of visual information that photographic enlargement ultimately produces.

Neither Sherman nor Prince recalls what they showed in “POP.” Lawler thinks Prince showed a 1983 photograph of a detail of a photograph showing acorn jewelry nestled among the branches of a leafy plant—a notably innocuous work by the artist who had only just pulled off “one of the biggest stunts of his career.” Though “POP” was itself hardly innocuous, it was a rather restrained exhibition to be sporting such a loud little name. It was, as McCollum says, tight and modest, its artists all strong. But to say, as he does, that it was memorable would be to fly in the face of the historical fact that it made virtually no impression.

The only other show at Spiritual America that anyone recalls in any detail is of Peter Nadin’s “still life” paintings. Though no one can say precisely when this event took place (the sequence of the shows remains unknown), Lawler remembers bringing Nadin a gift of bananas on the occasion of the show’s opening. Others, it is said, brought apples. “I think I showed fifteen or twenty paintings and read a couple of poems,” writes Nadin. “I remember the occasion very fondly especially because many people arrived bearing gifts of fruit. Strangely, the fruit fell into two categories—bananas and apples. As the paintings derived from a castration complex, the sight of many people holding debagged metaphoric cock and balls was entirely appropriate.”

No one remembers exactly when Prince and Fine closed down Spiritual America—or why. Robinson tells me that he thinks Fine got disillusioned (with Prince? with her self-employment as a fake gallerist losing real money?) and moved to Florida. The gallery was a brief, minor, yet telling episode in the history of pop after Pop, in which one artist revealed certain things about himself and his milieu at a time when the economic stakes were liberatingly low. And, wouldn’t you know that that somewhere in the process of writing this article, I discovered that I finally lost the announcement card for “POP.”

David Deitcher teaches art and critical theory at Cooper Union and at the ICP/Bard Program for Advanced Photographic Studies, New York.